We’re all ears

government asked children and young people what they wanted, and now they know
– more leisure time options. Sarah Wellard reports.

the government published its draft framework for a national strategy for
children and young people at the end of last year,1 it made clear
that it wanted children to be included in the consultation. Around 2,500
children and young people participated, attending meetings, completing activity
booklets, questionnaires, and sending in postcards.

Althea Efunshile, head of the Children and
Young People’s Unit, says she is "delighted with the response. It’s a good
basis for making a judgement about what issues young people feel are

When children under 12 were asked what were
the most important things to include in the government’s plan, more than half
of those who responded wanted more activities, more parks or more youth clubs.
Similarly, of teenagers sending in ideas about what they would change if they
were prime minister for a day, over a third wrote about something to do with
leisure – more youth clubs, parks and sports centres.

How much do we value children’s play? Looking
around at our streets and playgrounds, the answer seems to be not very much.
The rights of motorists come before those of children to play safely.
Playgrounds are often poorly maintained, with the result that they are barely
used. For older children things are even worse. The youth service has been run
down and adventure playgrounds and skateboard parks are rare. More traffic on
the roads, parents’ fears for their children’s safety and increased fencing and
security on areas of undeveloped and disused land mean that children are less
able to play out than they used to be. Despite the common perception of couch
potato children watching television and playing computer games, we know from
other surveys that children want more opportunities for recreation, and
especially to play outside.2

Efunshile agrees that there isn’t enough for
children and especially teenagers to do. Through her involvement in the
Treasury’s cross-cutting review of children at risk of exclusion, she has
highlighted the importance of youth and recreational services. "I can’t
prejudge the outcome of the spending review, but we have been getting strong
messages about these sorts of services being key, along with child and
adolescent mental health and family support."

And there are other signs that the government
is beginning to take play more seriously, with extra funds being made available
through the New Opportunities Fund and local strategic partnerships for
expenditure on children’s leisure facilities. However, children and young
people are not only interested in play and recreation. They also share many of
their parents’ concerns, about health, education, crime and the environment.
Efunshile says, "It’s a mature response about a range of issues. They want
to be listened to and have more of an impact on decision makers."

Were any of the issues identified a surprise?
Efunshile answers: "I was surprised at the extent to which they saw family
support services as important. But it tallies with what we find in terms of
insufficient family support on the ground and the need to focus on children and
young people in the context of family and community and not just as
individuals. We need to put in place more preventive services and more adolescent
mental health services."

Some interesting differences arise when you
look at the breakdown of responses by age, ethnicity and gender. For example,
when under 12s were asked about their dream for children, those with special
educational needs or a disability were more than twice as likely as other
respondents to mention better education. Girls were more likely than boys to
mention bullying and being happy. Non-white children more often mentioned
concerns about education, and being listened to.

Having collected these responses, what is the
CYPU going to do with them? Efunshile says: "What’s important is that they
feed into the final strategy document at the end of the year. They need to be
included in the outcome measures."

Finally, does Efunshile think the message
about listening to children is really getting through? "Where we’ve been
really successful is that 11 government departments have agreed to develop
action plans for listening to children and young people. It indicates that the
government is taking it seriously and thinking about how children’s
participation affects services."

1 Building a Strategy for Children and Young People Consultation
Document, CYPU, November 2001

2 Cole-Hamilton, Gill, Making the Case for Play, National
Children’s Bureau, 2002

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